Defining Moments in Black History - Reading Between the Lines
Nobody on the planet’s got a better memory than a man who is illiterate. When he hits on a woman, since he can’t write down her name, number, and address, he’s got to memorize it.
I wasn’t always the smartest man in the room. On October 12 they closed the schools. I thought they did it for my birthday, since I was born on that day. It made me feel special. I didn’t know anything about Columbus Day when I was coming up. I’m amused by that now, but what I’ve come to learn in my long life is that ignorance is not bliss; it is time consuming and costly as hell.
Case in point: As a boy, I loved cowboy movies and went to see them three times a week, with the big show being on Sundays. I could relate to the cowboy because I saw my life in his. In every scene, he wore the same pair of boots, the same jacket, the same outfit. His shoes were not shined. His socks were not clean. I never saw him read a book. Never saw him go to dinner. And I said, That’s me.
Cowboys were the biggest sensation on the planet at the time, and I thought I was one of them. But reality quickly set in. After the movie was over and I was leaving, I would walk through the alleys on my way home. I was embarrassed. Although the cowboys wore the same clothes, and that made me feel comfortable in my poverty, I was not fully affirmed because I did not see any black cowboys in the movies. Once the movie was over, I was reminded that I was a poor black boy, and I felt shame.
My boyhood shame shaped my life and my beliefs. It made me recognize that you don’t buy a Rolls-Royce and go back to the ghetto with it. You hang out where Rolls-Royce people hang out. Why? Because you violate poor people with the very act of showing them what you have and reminding them of what is out of reach to them. The people in the ghetto are driving around in twenty-year-old Fords. If you bring a Rolls-Royce around, you obviously embarrass them. This is one of the reasons I’m disturbed by some black ministers, those that flash their excess around their poor congregants and claim it’s a blessing from God. Why is God blessing only you? See, Catholic priests, no matter how much money they have, they all wear uniforms. No fancy clothes to make other folks feel bad about their own bargain basement clothing.
If I had a church and a Rolls-Royce, I would park six blocks away from the church and put on my robe. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of. The way I see it, the poor make a sacrifice for the rich, but that’s a whole other story.
Although I felt bad after seeing the cowboy movies, while I was watching them I was transported. I’ve never been on a horse in my life, literally. I didn’t have a horse, but I’d slap my leg and say, “Giddy up, giddy up!” And when my mama made me mad, I’d say “pow” and point my finger like it was a gun.
After that, what were the odds of me growing up and liking nonviolent Martin Luther King Jr.? As a boy, John Wayne was my hero. John Wayne didn’t talk about nonviolence. “If you’re right and they’re wrong, then kill ’em”—that’s what John Wayne said, and I loved that. Then I had to rethink that whole thing when I got to know King. Now I look at John Wayne and say, You nasty, violent, ignorant somebody. That’s why I say ignorance is not bliss, but costly. I did not understand the limits of violence. It took Martin Luther King to show me. And I didn’t know that I shouldn’t be ashamed of being poor either.
But change in attitude does not come quickly. When I was in high school, I worked at the Shell gas station making more money than I had ever had. One summer day, the weather was good. A few of the other guys and I were talking trash and looking at some girls who were standing on the corner. I said, “Man, let’s forget about work,” and we skipped work for several days to hang with the girls. We didn’t worry about it until it got close to payday. At the same time, we were kind of thinking that we might be fired, since we hadn’t shown up for work in days. We were scared to return. Sure enough, when we went back to work, the boss said to me, “Where you been?” I lied and said, “My mama died.” Next thing I know, he came on over, started touching my shoulder, saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Oh, I’m just so sorry.” Then he opened up his old, worn-out leather wallet, took out a ten-dollar bill, handed it to me, and said, “Just enjoy yourself.” I said, “I came to get my check!” He said, “Hold on. I’ll get it for you.”
About six months later, same thing happened. This guy named Charles Simmons and I were just sitting outside talking trash to the girls, not thinking about going to work. Eventually, we went to get our checks, and my white employer asked, “Where you been?” I said, “My mama died.” And he did the same thing as the previous time—patted me on the back and gave me money. At that moment, I knew that he was not really thinking about me. Learning that my boss did not sincerely care was an important lesson for me to learn early in life. I have not worked for anyone since. I’ve been on my own making up my career as I go along. People call me an activist, social critic, comedian, and, let’s not forget, conspiracy theorist. In this book, I have combined all of these talents to allow us to look at American history differently. Part of my unique perspective was having been there. I was friends with most of the people mentioned and I stood next to some of them during their greatest moments—Muhammed Ali, Michael Jackson, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and so many more.
Along with my activism, I have spent my entire life in the pursuit of knowledge—knowledge as it has meaning to me as a person of color. I appreciate all people, no matter their race, especially since we all evolved from the same stardust. But we must all be honest and recognize that the way black people see the world is quite different from how others see it, which is as it should be.
One’s race is more clearly defined by cultural practices and values than skin color. For instance, have you ever read those stories about people who were found dead at their jobs? One of those stories where they found a person keeled over, head on his desk, and he was not discovered until the next day? I guarantee that would never be a black person. If black people feel a little bit funny, like something-ain’t-right-in-the-air kind of funny, we’re calling in sick. If it’s looking like rain, and you know what that does to our hairdo, we’re thinking of calling in. If we ate too much at dinner and our clothes are too tight the next morning, we’re not going to work. Many Caucasian people, on the other hand, love their work. At their jobs they are affirmed and well-compensated. They’re given all the resources they need to make every day a good day. So, it’s no surprise that they love their work so much that they don’t even want to retire. If I didn’t work for myself, I would have retired a long time ago! I would still retire, even though I know that about a hundred years before I was born, black folks were qualified to do what I’m doing now but they didn’t get the chance. But, seriously, other races have a different relationship to work because historically they haven’t been demeaned by it—and they most definitely have not not been compensated for their labor. The earlier I got to work every day, the earlier I’d lose my dignity. And if I could find a reason to get off early, the sooner I’d get it back.
In my pursuit of knowledge, throughout my more than eighty years on this planet, I’ve learned many interesting things, particularly about culture. Way, way back, lightning struck a pig barn. Know how rich you need to be to keep pigs in a barn? Well, two brothers, the sons of the barn’s owner, ran out to the barn and saw that it was burning down. They smelled something they liked: barbeque. They started sniffing and said, “Damn! That stuff smells good!” But check this out: thousands of years passed before people realized that they could cook a pig without burning the barn down. That’s how long it takes to undo a culture, a way that people do things that’s been there forever, because that’s how they’ve always done it. In fact, they think they’d be crazy to do it a different way.
If your children were born in France, and then you and your wife weren’t around, what language would they speak? French, right?
Language doesn’t have a thing to do with human nature, with who you are as a person. It’s culture. Wars are about culture. That’s why you and I, if we live in the same country, can’t have a war. The Civil War was about culture: “The North didn’t want the South to have slaves.”
If you go to Japan today, can you read a Japanese sign? No, you can’t. You think the universal God wanted something to change when you crossed the border? You think God wanted the border to begin with? That’s how the whole thing is messed up.
In relation to culture, I always say: white is not a color, it’s an attitude.
Black folks—we don’t appreciate ourselves. Look here: Anytime an oppressor says, “If you have one-thirty-second Negro blood, you’re a nigger,” I say, “Wait a minute.” Think about that now. This is my enemy; this is a guy who hates me and will do anything to keep me down. So, what he is saying is that in order to equal one of me, you’ve got to put thirty-two white boys next to me. But black folks don’t hear it that way. We hear the negative part of that statement. I mean, if you have a dollar bill, in order to equal that dollar in pennies, you’d have to have a hundred of those little things. It’s the same with white folks and black folks. We’re powerful, creative, and often ingenious. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of us who believe in our greatness. I’m not saying that other people are not exceptional. I’m saying that we are, too. Again, we are all from the same stardust.
If black people believed in ourselves, and not what people say about us, we would be leading the discussion on race relations rather than reacting to it. In fact, we could make the world realize how ridiculous racism is. For example, when I participated in civil rights marches, many times whites would attack us with dogs and fire hoses. At some point later, I had to laugh about the situation. Think about it: these folks were so angry that they were acting stone-cold crazy—frothing at the mouth, chasing blacks with dogs, spitting on us. And angry about what? Racism makes no sense. Whites hate blacks just because of the color of our skin. Any rational person knows that we can’t control the color of our skin. But it’s not our skin, it’s who we are that makes them lose their minds. Or maybe it’s seeing in our faces the atrocities they committed in our shared past?
So, now, you look at this mess we’re in, this racist mess that came about because we’re not thinking. Slavery has messed up our minds in countless ways. For instance, a black woman is the only woman on the planet who goes to a place called a “beauty parlor.” All other women go to a hair salon. But our women have been convinced that they are not attractive. There in the beauty parlor spending good money for what God already gave them—hair, nails, lashes. I’m here to say, God made everybody, and did God make ugly people? Sears and Roebuck didn’t give me nappy hair. The same universe that put the sun, the moon, and the stars in place gave me nappy hair. But then the white boy comes in and starts praising his definition of beauty in the media, and we believe it. If I was here a billion years before you, then don’t tell me that stuff you’re using ain’t mine.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments freed black people, made us citizens, and gave black men the right to vote (although they prevented us from doing so). The white woman didn’t get the right to vote until 1921. Now, that white woman was the white boy’s mama, but he would not let her vote. That was his mama. That was his daughter. That was his wife. That was his girlfriend. Anyway, we keep looking up to the white man, saying to ourselves, Oh, I’d like to be like him. For so many of us, our minds are so messed up that we want to be like him even though it does not make cultural sense.
Meanwhile, he’s trying to be like us, except we don’t know it because he’s trying to keep us from seeing that’s what he’s doing. People say, “Well, I don’t know why these white folks are lying in the sun trying to get a suntan.” Man, hear what he’s saying: a suntan, not a sunblack. (I was doing some research and found an article that said that 80 percent of the coral reefs had been destroyed by suntan lotion. They’ve been there trillions of years, and if suntan lotion does that to a coral reef, what do you think it’s doing to people? The universe will pay your ass back.) A white man may not say he’s trying to be like us, but look at what he’s doing. A rose by any other name, see what I’m saying?
We don’t appreciate ourselves. We don’t appreciate what it means to go through what black people’ve been through and still be here. Think about being under stress all the time and what that does to your body—the adrenaline rush and all the other physiological stuff. Did you ever walk down the street and see a cat turn the corner and come up on a dog? Ever see what happens to the cat’s body? It goes straight up. That’s the response that God gave it: fight or flight. Hair sticks up, shoots out every which way, like the Big Bang if the universe were made of fur. It’s the same with humans and adrenaline. Your eyes—suddenly you can see forty miles away. The fastest animal out there—you can outrun it. You have the energy of you and somebody else, too. Now, that’s meant to happen for just a few minutes, until you’re out of danger. That fight-or-flight response wasn’t meant to exist twenty-four hours a day, every day. But when something that’s supposed to last a few minutes happens to you all the time, how do you think that will mess you up? Why do you think black folks have high blood pressure so bad (that and pork rinds)? It’s a genetic response to the oppression we’ve been dealing with for four hundred years, passed down from one generation to the next.
If I were to leave home and go to work knowing a racist was there, I would start getting scared. But I can’t quit my job. Now, that’s not a problem for just black folks. Most other folks can’t quit their jobs, either. They’ve got mortgages to pay; they’ve got children to send to college. Financial worries are the same with black folks, except we also have to be worried about racism, too. I have to go to work, I have to take care of this, take care of that, just like white folks, but with all that pressure I feel, that fight-or-flight response, that suppressed fear and rage—it changes my whole body chemistry. When I leave work and yell at my wife or children, it’s not because I’m mad at them. I’m mad at the boss man, but it would cost me my job to say something to him. If I haul off and slap him upside the head, the rest of the Negroes say, “Nigger must be crazy. He knew he was going to be fired.”
That’s why, when black folks go to church, our music has got to be loud. (Go to a white Catholic church; they’re not hollering.) Our music’s got to be loud just so we can forget the boss man and the week we just had, so we can have a little bit of peace. We’ve got to un-mess up our minds from what we’ve been through. We use the music to clear our heads, and we move our bodies in dance to shake off the excess stress.
So, if the white boy thinks it takes thirty-two of him to equal one of me, that’s why.
As I said, we don’t appreciate ourselves. We believe what other folks say about us. The purpose of this book is to spread the knowledge, to get the world thinking again, and to see what is truly there and not just take what we are told as truth. When I was a little boy, maybe my mama didn’t read that well, but we had every encyclopedia you could find. I would blow the dust off of them and read a volume every now and again.
Valuing information is something I have passed on to my children. Most of us do that. But, keep in mind, your children don’t hear what you mean; they hear what you say. So, when you teach your black children, “You’ve got to work twice as hard as a white child,” they hear you saying they’re dumb.
One day, my then-eight-year-old son Christian said to his mother, “I want to tell you something, but don’t tell Dad. I was out for recess and I forgot I left something behind and went back into the school to get it. I overheard a white teacher say, ‘Christian’s so dumb sometimes I think he is not a Gregory.’”
When I came home that night, Lillian, my wife, told me about the situation. I went in to see Christian. “Dad, am I as dumb as they say?” he asked me. And I said, “You are a dumb little boy. That’s what you are. Your mama won’t tell you that. Okay? But I’ll tell you because you are, and I’ll tell you because the difference between As and Ds has got nothing to do with smartness! It’s discipline, that’s all. And your sister Michelle—my advice is to follow her around everywhere she goes and do what she does.”
One day when Christian was thirteen years old, I was running through the house getting ready to go out, and he stopped me and said, “How did you know if I started following Michelle I’d start making straight As?” And I said, “The difference between an A and an F is discipline, and your sister is the most disciplined person I know.” Today Christian is a doctor.
It’s true. I did not have any issues with my daughters when it came to education. Most boys spend time playing. Girls make better grades because they are in the house studying. For the most part, that’s the way black girls are raised—to stay in the house.
One day, my daughter Michelle came to me and said, “Well, now, since you made me go to this white school, I’m fixing to go to grad school. Where should I go?” Since she was acting so high and mighty, I said, “Go to the London School of Economics.” She did not even know it existed when I mentioned it, but a few months later she came to me with an acceptance letter. Today, she has the only PhD in sexual harassment in the workplace on the whole planet. If she comes in and testifies against you as an expert witness, that’s it—you’re going down, because she’s the authority on the subject.
We can get into serious trouble by not valuing education and learning. Did you know that 98 percent of the children who drown in the summertime are black? Why? Because historically we weren’t allowed in swimming pools because of Jim Crow. That law put a bad taste in black folks’ mouths, and to this day I don’t know how to swim. On my family’s farm, there was a lake a thousand feet deep. I told her, if one of our kids starts to drown, you go get him. I’m not going in the water. I can’t swim. I’m not going to play like I’m swimming. And when I was home, and the kids were out in the water playing, I would leave the house. I didn’t even want to hear them call my name when they were near the water.
Everybody knows we were at one time enslaved, but many of us think that we’re supposed to be slaves, and act like we believe it, too. Look here: when Africans were brought to the Americas, we didn’t become slaves until we got here. If you jumped off the ship, you weren’t a slave; you were a person who had been kidnapped. You didn’t pick cotton on the way over here. It’s not in your nature to be a slave.
These people we’re dealing with didn’t raid a country; they raided a whole continent. I’m from a whole continent, a continent made up of tribes at war with one another. The Oyos didn’t like the Dahomeys, who didn’t like the so-and-sos, who didn’t like the so-and-sos. We black folks had spears, and for a thousand years we were throwing them at one another. In that way, we were like the people in Europe who were also fighting one another, although they used different weapons. Europe is a continent. Almost every single one of those countries on that continent has fought every last one of the others. They didn’t have to fight Asia; they were too busy fighting each other all over the continent.
Now, in slavery times, black folks were put on ships in West Africa. That very same spot where the slaves were put on ships is where hurricanes start. Most hurricanes start in West Africa and follow the same trail that the slave ships followed. There is no record of a hurricane hitting America before that. If you don’t believe me, look it up. The first Africans were brought to America as slaves in 1619. The first hurricane slammed into this place in 1635. I say a hurricane is the spirit of a black woman. (That’s why it starts with her!) No slave was offloaded until the ships got to the Caribbean. Hurricanes stay below water until they get all the way to the Caribbean. They will hit the United States and come up the East Coast, all the way to Maine. Now, Canada is as close to Maine as a car is to the curb, but Canada doesn’t have hurricanes half as bad as we have. Why not? Because Canada never messed with a black woman like we did, although they did have slaves.
That black sister, she’s the only person on this planet who can take a butter knife and cut your tires to the rim. And everybody says, “Wait a minute. A butter knife?” Better believe it, man. That is who she is. That’s who we are. That’s that spirit. That’s power.
Other folks see it, but we don’t.
Here’s another indication of our power in the universe. Prior to the Middle Passage sharks had a natural migration. They swam in this particular pattern for hundreds of years. Then the Middle Passage comes along—all that blood in the ocean. The blood of millions of black people. The sharks changed their migration pattern to follow the blood. They continue to swim along that same route today. Slavery was wrong on so many levels that it changed the world in ways we do not even recognize.
That’s our power.
You know what you can do? Learn what black folks have already done, and understand how smart and tough you needed to be to survive back then and now. Black folks are superheroes. We can be invisible when we have to be.
Think about your mama’s mama: maybe she was a maid for white folks. Now, how many times have you been in a cab and started talking to your friend like the cab driver can’t hear a thing? It was the same with your mama’s mama, listening to white folks who forgot she was in the room. It was the same thing when the black folks worked at the hospital where they took Martin Luther King Jr. after he was shot on the balcony in Memphis. When they took him to the hospital, he was still alive—which is what the black people who worked there at the time told me. They said that as he lay on that gurney, King was spat on and then smothered to death. Our invisibility is part of our survival. We can even transform into cowboys, despite the fact that there was no evidence of a black cowboy back when I used to watch cowboys on TV. We got so we knew white folks—we had to, just to survive.
Now it’s time to know ourselves. It’s time to value ourselves. Give you one example: I can’t understand how Negroes, with all the humiliation we’ve been through, would join a black group, a fraternity, that would paddle their asses. We come from a history of humiliation. The white mob that was ready to do all kinds of crazy stuff to you and me—the folks in that mob didn’t paddle one another’s asses so they could be in the mob. So why would you do that to somebody who looks like you? And why would you up and volunteer to have somebody do that to you?
The thing is when you go outside this messed-up country, everybody else in this messed-up world thinks we’re beautiful. Check this out: I used to go to Russia all the time. I took my wife, Lil, with me once. The subways in Russia go three miles down—so far down in the earth you think you’re about to come out the other side. And clean? They’re cleaner than any hospital you’ve got in America, or any restaurant, cleaner than anything you ever saw over here. Anyway, we’re on the subway, and people are looking at Lil. One of them comes up and stares right at her. And Lil looks at me and says, “Thirty million Russians ride the subway every day in Moscow. They’re not doing this to one another. I can’t believe you let these white folks do me like this.” And I said, “Yeah? The day I’ll stand up for your honor it won’t be around thirty million Russians. The odds’ve got to be a little better than that.”
Then I thought of something, and said, “I’ve been coming over here five years and they ain’t never looked at me like that.” Then I figured it out. I said, “The Russians had seen black American men all over the world as soldiers but have never seen a black woman—and now they know how beautiful you are. That’s what they’re looking at, the way a child looks at a Christmas toy. That’s who you are. I can’t see it, because a white racist system told me you ain’t nothing beautiful. I can’t see it because they told me, ‘Your skin was too black and your hair was too nappy.’”
Beauty is what the real world sees when they look at a black woman. It’s what it sees when it looks at Lil. It’s what it sees when it looks at Michelle Obama, Halle Berry, and Fannie Lou Hamer. (Do not let me get started on fine women.) Beauty—that’s what the real world sees.
“I don’t see it,” I told Lil, “because these white folks done told me how ugly you are, with them big lips and big nose and all that.”
Think about that, now. For almost fifty years, the Russian people stood toe to toe with the United States of America in the Cold War; that’s how tough and smart those people were. You hear me? And they’re staring at my wife because she’s beautiful. So, that’s the whole game of it. They see what we black folks don’t see, what we need to start seeing.
Know who you are. Value who you are. Knowing yourself and valuing yourself comes from knowing what’s true and accurate. I went to Iran in the 1970s, when the Ayatollah Khomeini was in charge, kicking America’s ass. He sent his secretary, a man, to tell me that I had to leave the country that weekend because Iran had word they were going to be hit by a surprise attack from Iraq. Before I left, Khomeini sent me a long letter, thanking me for being there. He wrote, “You are beautiful, Uncle Tom.” Now, I had enough sense to know that the admiration he had for me was real. It was due to my own ignorance that I didn’t know who Uncle Tom really was. One brother will call another one “Uncle Tom” like it’s the worst insult he can pull out of his whole nappy head, not realizing that the original Uncle Tom was a hero who defied his master. Don’t believe me? Go read the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom was based on a real person, Josiah Henson. He rescued 118 black folks from slavery.
I remember when I was a little boy, I heard the old black folks say, “There’s some people in Africa that white folks ain’t never messed with, and they’re not going to mess with, because they control everything.” They said, “Those people are the Uncle Toms, the shape shifters.” I just thought that meant that black folks could get real mean, not that they could change into gorillas or elephants or something crazy like that. But, in a way, shape shifters are what we are because black folks make ourselves into whatever we need to be to survive.
Think about Napoleon. That short little French dude set out to conquer the world, and damn near did it, too. He had the single greatest military capability in the history of the planet at that time, had all of Europe trembling while he conquered territory right and left. Then he went to the Americas. That was the first time that little dude messed up, because it was the first time he messed with black folks. The black general Toussaint L’Ouverture—now that was one smart man—had already led a slave revolt and taken over the French colony in Saint-Domingue, which is now Haiti. Napoleon decided he wanted the land back. He and his gang managed to trick Toussaint L’Ouverture, who died in a French prison, but the rest of the black folks there gave the French troops such a fit that Napoleon finally said, “Later for this. We’re out of here”—except it sounded nicer than that because he said it in French—and he left. Pulled out of the Americas, signed the Louisiana Purchase, and went the hell on back to France and didn’t look back. All because of what happened when he decided to mess with black people. You hear what I’m trying to say? That’s the power we have when we’re together, when we do what we need to do. That’s why we need to celebrate ourselves.
We did that by ourselves. Nobody gave Toussaint L’Ouverture and his soldiers any help. Many folks think that all blacks live off the system, but most of the time we keep surviving without anybody or anything except ourselves. Look at when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, during the Great Depression. Roosevelt said, “Let’s create the WPA,” the Works Progress Administration, which was meant to put white folks to work so they could earn a decent living. So, now here’s a white boy at the WPA digging a hole that doesn’t need to be dug; his brother comes along that evening and fills it back up. Anyway, black folks weren’t included. Yet, we praise Roosevelt. Black folks didn’t get included in Social Security, either—not the way it worked then, at least. Social Security initially didn’t cover farmers and domestics, which is what 99 percent of black folks were at the time.
Consequently, now all these black folks are out of work. How are we going deal with it? We survived—you doing for me, me doing for you. Maybe I don’t have the money to pay you for fixing my roof, but here are some jars of peaches. Or let me watch your children while you go to work. That’s who I am. That’s who you are. That’s how we got by.
In the history of the planet, nobody else went through what we as black people have been through and survived. That takes strength, smarts, and spirit. And other people see it, even the ones who don’t want to admit it. That’s why white folks have us take care of their children. Yes, half the time we raise their damn children for them. That’s what they see in me that I don’t see in me, that holy spirit. And then they try to tell me that I ain’t nothing. They know. Consider this a minute: what German would hire a Jew to take care of his house? He’d sooner burn it to the ground. And I don’t know a single black person who would hire a white person to take care of their child. But white folks go all over the world and leave my mama back there to feed their children and take care of them, dress them for school. That’s what I’m trying to say. If you miss that, then you miss who we are.
We feed them, take care of them. They are not dealing with slaves. They are dealing with people with no bitterness at all. That is who I am, not just some slave they brought over. The sooner we understand what we are made of, the better off we’ll be.
In this book, I’m offering information on a variety of subjects and personalities that have influenced the world in a special way. Most of the stories come to me from my having been there. I marched in Selma during the civil rights movement, organized student rallies to protest the Vietnam War, sat in at rallies for Native American and feminist rights, and fought apartheid in South Africa. I’ve also been to some incredible places and have met some amazing leaders along the way.
I used to hang out with Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Bimini. (In Bimini, they have no hotels, no buildings, just one bar that’s about a mile long. All the big folks from around the world went there on their planes or yachts and drank all day. The playwright Tennessee Williams, the writer Ernest Hemingway, the actress Judy Garland, and more—that’s where they used to hang out. When I went there with Adam, man, I could not believe it.) They loved Adam there. I mean wow, man, just the number one preacher in New York.
I have been to see the Taj Mahal and the rest of that stuff in India. When I came back, people asked me, “Greg, Greg. Tell me, what was it like?” I said, “I’m going to disappoint you, baby, but what I found out when I got there is the way I used to feel at home when I had five caramels in one pocket, six in the other, and a pocketful of marbles. It’s the kind of place where if you don’t bring it with you, it won’t be there when you get there.”
In 1968, I did a film with the writer James Baldwin, Baldwin’s Nigger. Baldwin was so brilliant. I would just sit and laugh and talk with him for long periods of time. He was like something God had just spat out. It was like God told him, “You go down there, you’ll have some problems, but just keep doing it.” A thousand years from now they’ll still be reading what Baldwin wrote—and it will still be relevant then. But his writing doesn’t let you know what a funny man he was.
In addition to these incredible experiences, I’ve also been to jail. Anybody trying to change a country for the better (or by simply being a black man on a sunny day) is usually arrested—par for the course. I went to jail on nine counts, for nine months total, for protesting. Jail is not pleasant under any circumstances, but I tried to make the best of it. They put me off in a private room because they knew I might stir up trouble, another protest or something right inside the jail. There were bunk beds in my room. I took the bottom bunk and attached my book on meditation to the bunk above me to allow me to read hands-free. There’s not a lot to do in jail, so I meditated for a long while. Next thing I knew, I heard a knocking sound. It was my head hitting the top bunk. I must have been going at it a while because there was blood on my forehead. After my body returned to the mattress, I said, “Oh, that’s what meditation’s about.” Levitation. Several people witnessed my levitation. It’s the fastest way to get out of jail, I’ll tell you that!
Self-knowledge and cultural pride can also give you a feeling of levitation.
Searching for Freedom
It was in the New York Times that there are 1.5 million black men missing. They are not in jail. I couldn’t imagine where they were until I saw the movie Get Out.
Everyone knows that slavery wasn’t right. Not just human slavery, but all forms of slavery are wrong. Folks that own dogs and cats and other animals should recognize that they are practicing a form of slavery. Every time we go to the zoo, we condone slavery. The same universal God that made me and you also made dogs, cats, elephants, and gorillas. Straight up. When you own a dog, you determine when it’s going to mate, when it’s going to pee, when it’s going to eat, when it’s going to take a crap. You have to see that’s slavery, because once you start off with the idea of something as being beneath you, you’re lost. I tell people, you’ll find out on Judgment Day. You’ll see a slave master, and you will all be in the same room waiting to get that train to hell.
When you submit to another human being and let him do something to you, that violates God, violates the universe. During the slave trade, hundreds of thousands of Africans jumped off the ships carrying them and died. Our revolts against slavery are what I like to focus on, as well as the ways slavery psychologically impacted all of society. Think about it: somebody comes over to where you’re living, someone you’ve never seen, because most of you have never seen white folks. They’ve come there to steal your children and to send you, the dad, to one place, the mama someplace else, and the brother yet someplace else.
During slavery, the women were of equal value to the men. Listen, there isn’t another man in the world, besides the black man, who looks at his woman and says, “I’m going to get some of that booty.” Have you ever heard that word used referring to a woman of another race? You know what it means? The loot the pirate takes off the ship is called booty. So, this woman, who’s never been liberated—we call what she has “booty.” I believe this is a direct result of slavery.
We arrive in a new land. The people in America do not speak my tongue and they do not practice my religion. Today people laugh at me and want to know why I speak English so bad. Because when the whites brought me here I wasn’t speaking anything but pure Swahili. That’s why. They should not try to embarrass me.
The same God that made the sun made me. I went and looked at all the Seven Wonders of the World, and I came back and I said, “Wow, none of them was made by God.” How come the ocean isn’t one?
I went to Egypt. A man there told me that Egypt has the third-largest tourist economy in the world. Everybody comes to see the pyramids. So, the Egyptian said, “I’d like for you and your friend to join us tonight where the superrich go, to sleep under the pyramid.” I said, “Man, look at this here.” I pointed at my nose. “That’s the pyramid, you understand? And as long as I sleep on my back, I get a thousand times more energy than I’d get from that mess you’re selling. My nose is my pyramid.” God made it.
The Middle Passage
Slavery in America didn’t start with black folks. In the 1500s, people from Spain and Portugal were over here enslaving Indians. That’s what they called the natives living here, Indians, because when that dummy Christopher Columbus came here, this fool gets lost and all of a sudden he done “discovered” something. He thought he had reached India, and the mistake stuck. So, they took those poor “Indians” from their homes and sent them every which way to work in mines and fields in the Caribbean, Peru, and Panama—the ones who hadn’t already died from being exposed to European germs, that is. Then word got back to the king of Spain, Charles V, about how bad the “Indians” were being treated, and he outlawed slavery in the so-called New World. (Of course, it wasn’t new to the people who had been living there!) Too bad Charles waited until after most of the natives had been worked to death or died of disease, huh? Plus, Charles didn’t have control over what the other European countries did. Even after Spain backed off, Portugal was still in the game, and then the Dutch got involved, and then—watch out—there came the English. When the English started setting up colonies over here in the Americas, in the 1600s, let me tell you, that was bad news for black folks. The English wanted slaves, too. For a while they used poor white folks from back home as what they called indentured servants, but that didn’t work out too well, because they had to honor the servants’ contracts, or else the servants ran away, and because the servants were white, they could blend right in wherever they went. Guess who couldn’t blend in? And so, the English and other countries soon set their sights on Africans, and the slave business was on for real.
Now, the Middle Passage—that’s what they called the trip that brought slaves by ship from Africa to the Americas. Think for a second about why it’s called the Middle Passage. For something to be in the middle, it’s got to be between two other things. And those two other things tell you what the whole deal was really about.
The Middle Passage was the second leg of the journey. The first leg started in Europe. Folks from countries like Spain and Portugal, but also England and France—the same folks we think of today when we think of grace, style, and good manners—they went to Africa and traded some cheap mess they had made for live Africans. (Notice I didn’t say “slaves.” We weren’t slaves till we got here.) Then, on the Middle Passage, they brought the Africans to America and the Caribbean and traded these living, breathing people (or, rather, the ones who were still living and breathing) to white folks here for stuff they could take back with them to Europe. The third leg of the journey was the trip back across the ocean to the homes of those dainty, graceful, civilized, slave-trading European bastards.
The main word here is trading. That’s what the whole thing was about. The people who started the slave trade didn’t hate Africans, didn’t hate black folks. They didn’t care about us one way or another—until they realized they could make money by capturing us and selling us as free labor. It was when the Africans got here and became American black folks that the real hating started. To justify keeping somebody as a slave, you’ve got to say—and you’ve got to believe it—that that person is not a real human. And the more human people seem to you, the more you’ve got to tell yourself they’re not. If whites had admitted to themselves that they could treat other humans in such a horrible manner, it would have meant admitting that they themselves had a problem acting like human beings. So, their questioning our humanity had more to do with them than with us. One of the reasons that racism doesn’t end is because we’re seen as a commodity, not as human beings.
You know and I know that the Africans brought over here on those slave ships were as human as anybody else. That’s what makes thinking about what our ancestors endured during the Middle Passage so horrible. But we need to think about it, because it’s our history.
Think about the last time you were on a bus or subway car on a hot summer day when the air conditioner wasn’t working. You’re squeezed in like socks in a drawer fresh from the laundry, except fresh is not the right word—the man in front of you is sweating like a farmer, the man behind you smells like he took a bath in pig manure—and pretty soon you get to sweating and smelling your own self. Now imagine that instead of sitting or standing up, you’re all lying down. Imagine that instead of just starting and stopping, like a bus or subway usually does, this thing you’re on rises and falls like a roller coaster, making you sick to your stomach. And imagine that your stop never seems to come. An hour passes, a day, a week, two weeks—but your stop still doesn’t come. Then, when it does come, you can’t get off, because you’re shackled to the man next to you. Maybe you start talking to each other; pretty soon you’re both crying, because neither one of you knows where you’re going, or what’s going to happen when you get there, or whether you’ll ever see your wife or son or daughter or mother or brother again. Then you notice that you’ve been doing all the talking, and it’s been a while since your new friend said anything. Maybe he’s sleeping. Then you realize that, no, he’s not sleeping. He’s dead. Now you’re really crying, or you would be, except the odor down there has gotten so bad that you start to vomit instead. Now there’s vomit all over you and nothing in your stomach, and you don’t know if there’s ever going to be anything in your stomach, because the people who brought you here haven’t said a word about feeding you.
Now they do bring you some food, because you have to be healthy enough to be sold. But even if it weren’t disgusting, which it is, you feel too sick to eat it. You eat anyway, because you’ve got to stay alive. That’s the only thing you know: you’ve got to stay alive.
It sounds like a nightmare the way I’m describing it, but real people went through that nightmare. Millions of real people—your ancestors and mine. Are you African American? Go back enough generations in your family, and there’s somebody on one of those slave ships who went through what I’ve just told you about. Somebody just as real as your mama—probably looked something like her, too, and for good reason. Somebody just as real as you. Think about that for a minute. Now, how do you feel?
Money and Slavery
When it comes to slavery, what people don’t think about is this: most people who were buying slaves didn’t have big money to buy them by the thousands. So, who put me on the boat and brought me here? It was the big-money folks. There was another group that sold slaves like somebody today sells cars. Let’s say you and your brother have a car dealership; you buy the cars from the automaker, and I come and buy them from you. The bankers lend you the money to get the cars from General Motors. You pay for the cars, then you sell one to me. Slavery was like that. One guy bought slaves and sold them to another guy. But the part that’s left out is: whom did the first guy buy them from? Who was the General Motors of the slave trade?
For that, you’ve got to go to Europe: Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands. They’re the ones who came up with the idea. They’re the ones who explored the routes to Africa, who bought the slaves from West Africa or else just took them, and who then went from there to the Americas. They were the ones to make the first profits.
The Americans who bought the slaves made a profit, too, because they turned around and sold them. The ones they sold them to also made a profit, because the slaves did their work for free. But the real profits made in America off slavery went other places. Banks handled the money from slave profits, and slave owners paid insurance companies in case something happened to the slaves. And money men in the North made a fortune by investing in those banks and insurance companies. In other words, the wealth of America was built on our backs.
Many of those companies are still around: J.P. Morgan, New York Life, Aetna, Lehman Brothers, and a whole lot more. Their money has been passed down from generation to generation of white descendants, and people are born into those families with wealth they didn’t do a thing to earn. That’s where real white guilt comes from. Meanwhile, you and I are born without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.
Tell that to the next person who asks you, “Slavery’s been over for a hundred fifty years. How come black people still don’t have anything? What’s wrong with you?”
The continuing inequality can make us angry sometimes. Let’s not take it out on one another and our community. We need to struggle together, not against each other.
Nat Turner’s Revolt
Here’s an example of how a white racist system can take something we ought to be proud of and turn it against us, use it to mess up our minds.
Now, believe me, I’m not taking anything away from Nat Turner. More people should name their children Nat Turner instead of naming them after football players. Today, a hundred fifty-some years after the end of slavery, some black folks’ minds are still messed up, but it’s not our fault. Anybody’s mind would be off if all they heard for hundreds of years was that they were nothing. But Nat Turner? That man was living in slavery but he didn’t take his cues from the oppressor. He was born and enslaved in Virginia in 1800, and slavery was all he knew. Yet he was able to see that that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He was able to resist what racists told him, because he was in touch with a higher power, or he thought he was, which I guess added up to the same thing.
The thing about Nat Turner was, from the time he was a little boy, people around him, black and white, saw that he was special. They figured he was going to do something great one day, even if he was a slave. (If the white folks had known what that “something” was, they probably would have killed him right then and there.) The man who owned him even gave him a Bible, which Nat loved. Also, his mother encouraged him because she thought he had so much potential.
Later, Nat and his mama got sold together. After their new owner died—Nat was married by that time—Nat’s wife got sold away. That didn’t sit right with Nat. Matter of fact, that might have been the thing that pushed him to do what he did. He was still religious, but he wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek kind of religious. More like the I-am-God’s-instrument kind. He started praying and having visions, and everything he saw pointed to fighting against slavery. And when I say “fight,” I don’t mean “protest.”
He looked to the heavens for signs. On February 12, 1831, he saw a solar eclipse and took it as a sign that it was time to free his people. At first, he planned the revolt for July 4. Isn’t that something? That would have been Independence Day, all right! Then he got sick, so he waited for another sign. One day in August, the sun turned a strange blue-green color, or so Turner thought it did, and that was the sign he was looking for. He planned the revolt for August 21 and started organizing. He met secretly with just a few others at first. Before they were done, their number grew to about seventy—slaves and free blacks alike.
The revolt started with Turner’s master, Joseph Travis, and his family. Turner and his followers killed them all. Then they moved on to other families, and by the next day they had killed sixty whites. They wouldn’t have stopped there, but then came the federal troops. Turner and the others didn’t go down without a fight, though. More than a hundred slaves died, which is more than the number of white folks they killed, but the white folks left alive didn’t forget the uprising, you can believe that. They were scared out of their minds. They captured Turner on October 30 and killed him on November 11. Today we celebrate Veterans’ Day on November 11, but next time it’s Veterans’ Day, think about Nat Turner. He sacrificed as much for his people as anybody wearing the uniform of the U.S. military.
Everybody talks about Nat Turner, even those who don’t know exactly what he did. And that’s the problem. When people talk about slave revolts, his is the only name you hear. White folks would have you think that in almost two hundred fifty years of slavery, there was only one brotha with enough balls to say, “I’m going to be free or die trying.” As if every other slave who ever lived was either happy to be picking cotton and saying “yassuh” seven hundred times a day or too scared to do a thing about it.
The truth is, there were a lot of slave revolts. For one thing, before Nat Turner, there was Denmark Vesey. He was a free black man—he bought his freedom in 1800 and then worked as a carpenter in South Carolina. Made a good living, too. But he wasn’t satisfied being free when other black folks were still under the lash. So, he organized a revolt. You don’t hear as much about Vesey as you do Nat Turner because Vesey’s rebellion got uncovered before it could take place. But Vesey and his crew were serious. They collected more than five hundred daggers, bayonets, and spears. They would have used them, too, but whites got wind of what was happening and that was the end of that. Vesey and others were executed.
After Vesey and Turner, the revolts kept up. In 1835, whites hanged a bunch of slaves and whipped others to death because they were about to rebel. In 1853, in South Carolina, twenty-five hundred slaves got ready to fight, but one free black man informed on them.
A whole lot of black folks resisted slavery. Ever heard of Maroons? They were slaves who ran away, formed groups, and lived together. Some of them had been captured in Africa and put on ships but ran away as soon as they reached America; a lot of them even tried to get back home. In 1856, a group of Maroons terrorized whites in a couple of counties in North Carolina. Whites got so scared and nervous, in fact, that they didn’t know what to do. Some of them stopped sleeping—they just stayed up all night waiting for black people to try something else. The revolts I’m telling you about—these are just the ones somebody saw fit to write down. Nobody knows how many more there were.
Vesey, Turner, and the Maroons were the blacks who took up arms. Other blacks fought slavery in other ways. Take a look at a piece of writing published in 1829 by a black man named David Walker, called the Appeal. Walker was a free black man who wanted other blacks to be free, too, by killing their masters if need be. (As Malcolm X would have said: By any means necessary.) Take a look at what Walker wrote: “[T]hey want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us. . . . [A]nd believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.” You hear what he was saying?
Don’t let anybody tell you black folks were slaves because we were happy that way. Happy folks don’t take up arms. We took up arms.
I want you to check out something that Frederick Douglass wrote in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
[S]laves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. . . . It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!
What my man Frederick Douglass is saying here is some heavy stuff. It just goes to show you that as much as slavery messed up people’s bodies, it messed up their minds even more. It was bad enough that black people had to work for nothing for Colonel Lloyd, Jacob Jepson, and thousands of other evil men just like them. It was bad enough that we got whipped and sold away from our parents and children and husbands and wives. It was bad enough that our lives were not our own. But what’s worse than that is the slaves who identified with their masters, as if the slaves’ value as human beings depended on what the masters were like. What they were like was evil! They were called “masters” because they owned human beings! And we slaves were ready to fight each other over which of the lowdown filthy dogs who owned us was the best! But it wasn’t the slaves’ fault. Like Douglass wrote, slaves are like other people. When you think about it, it’s a wonder more black folks didn’t fight with one another instead of fighting against the white man the way Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, David Walker, and a whole lot of others did.
While you’re busy shaking your head over some dumb slaves, ask yourself this: are we any better today? Black people put on the uniform of the U.S. military, our masters, and go to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else Uncle Sam tells us to go, and fight and kill yellow-skinned folks and brown-skinned folks on behalf of the United States, our masters—just like slaves fighting other slaves. Meanwhile, back home, one out of every half-dozen blacks is locked up for committing the same drug crimes as white dudes who walk around free. What’s wrong with that picture? Then you’ve got blacks in police uniforms out there arresting other innocent blacks.
Blacks in America really need to study the Jews in Germany. Those Jews never thought they were part of Hitler’s system, most of them never sided with the people oppressing them. We do. We go to war. What kind of abomination is that? How many blacks go to war because we can’t find a job, and are willing to kill or be killed just so we can feed ourselves and our families?
Getting back to Frederick Douglass, it’s like he said: Slaves are like other people. Too many of us have that slave mentality. It can take a lot to get past that, but a lot of us have, and Frederick Douglass was one.
He was born into slavery 1818 in Maryland. He wasn’t with his mother long enough to remember her very well, and the only thing he knew about his father was that he may have been the man who owned him.
Douglass shows what you can accomplish when your mind is free. He was somewhat free. He was taught to read when he was eight years old, by one of his owners, a white lady. What he didn’t learn from her, he picked up himself, sometimes by tricking white boys into showing him how to read and write words. When he got a little bit older, his rebelliousness came to the surface. Most teenagers start to rebel, but Douglass was one teenager with something to rebel against. He got a hold of some antislavery writings, and that fed his anger even more. Soon this got to be too much for his owner, who sent him to another plantation so they could break him. That only made Douglass more determined. A slave driver, Mr. Covey, beat him one day till he was covered in blood. But the next time he tried to lay a hand on him, he had a fight on his hands. It lasted a good couple of hours. This time, Covey was the one doing the bleeding. He never came near Douglass again. As Douglass wrote in his Narrative, “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave.” (“Career as a slave”—that cracks me up. Fred had a sense of humor.) Books say he escaped from slavery in 1838, when he was twenty, using seaman’s papers he had borrowed, then gave lectures for money for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Later, he started his own antislavery newspaper, the North Star, in 1847.
In 1852, on the day after Independence Day, Douglass gave a speech for the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York. The speech was later called “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass talked about Americans’ most special holiday, and he told it exactly like it was. He started off so nice and meek that he almost seemed to be apologizing for being there, but then, when he got all those white folks all relaxed and comfortable, he sprang this on them:
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? . . . I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct.
That was Fred. All white folks had to do was teach him to use their language, and he was able to use it a lot better than most of them ever would. After the Civil War started, he helped recruit black soldiers for the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to fight against the South and slavery. Years later, after the war was over, the president appointed him minister to Haiti. Fred was one black man who believed in himself and his own potential. Not bad for a brotha who started off as somebody else’s property, right?
The U.S. Treasury Department has been talking about putting a sister on the twenty-dollar bill: Harriet Tubman. You know if anything like that happens, black folks had nothing to do with it, because if we did, her picture would be lighter and her hair would be straight. Because that’s how many of us think. But when you stop and think about Harriet Tubman, and the reason we know about her: white historians picked the woman they wanted. You think out of millions of blacks who were slaves, there was only one woman out there helping slaves escape? They picked the one they wanted, and then they told us, “Now you leave us alone, okay? See if you can find another one. You ain’t got half enough money to do the research, and if you don’t do the research, you can’t find out.” When we stop and think about where we are, we realize we have to challenge everything folks say, even when it sounds good—like putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill.
Now, that’s not to take anything away from Harriet Tubman. She was a hero, sure enough. She was a little slip of a woman, wasn’t big as a minute, couldn’t read or write. All her life, she had dizzy spells because she once got hit in the head with a piece of metal a slave owner had chucked at another slave. That doesn’t sound much like somebody who could lead runaway slaves to Canada, does it? But she did, and if you were one of the slaves she was taking and you got scared and wanted to turn back, she’d pull out a pistol and threaten to shoot you. She may have been a little woman, but she was a serious little woman.
She was born with the name Araminta Harriet Ross in 1822. She had eight brothers and sisters. Like Frederick Douglass, she was a rebel. One time, she stole some sugar and thought her owner was going to beat her for it, so she hid for five days. She had no love for slavery, and getting hit on the head with that piece of metal didn’t help. Things like that—plus seeing family members sold away—made her decide she needed to escape. By then, she had a husband, John Tubman, but when he wouldn’t run away with her, and she couldn’t get anybody else in her family to go with her, she took off by herself. She made it to New Jersey on foot and became a paid domestic worker. Then she decided she wanted to sneak back down south and free her family, too. She started with her parents, who were old at that point. Before she was done, she had freed a many slaves. Nobody knows how many—some say around a hundred fifty, some say three hundred. They called her “Black Moses” because she freed her people like Moses in the Bible freed the Hebrews from Egypt. Except in the case of Moses, we have to take the Bible’s word for it. There are pictures of Harriet Tubman.
She was a spy, too. During the Civil War, when the white officers needed to know what was going on down south, they’d send free blacks like Harriet, because they could pass as slaves. Nobody’d think twice about seeing one more black person, especially one who looked as little and harmless as Harriet Tubman. We shouldn’t be underestimated.
Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin
Now, they tell you that a white man named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 and put a patent on it the next year. The cotton gin is a machine that separates cotton from cotton seeds. Up until then, black people, slaves, had to do that by hand. The slaves worked themselves to death picking the stuff, but slave owners didn’t care, because they didn’t care about anything when it came to slaves, as long as those slaves were working. But they say a white man invented the cotton gin, so the job would be easier.
If you never liked me, then why would you invent a cotton gin to ease my burden? The only people who care how hard it is are the people doing it. That’s why, when Eli Whitney went to Virginia to visit his mother and father’s friend, he saw these slaves sitting out there with this device we now call the cotton gin. And he went back and put a patent on it.
The Dred Scott Decision
Look at what was happening in the first half of the 1800s, the decades before the Civil War. The country didn’t know what to do about slavery. The South wanted it, and the North didn’t, and the two sides kept coming up with agreements that didn’t work out. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 made it so there couldn’t be slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of a certain point. Both sides agreed. Then, in 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which let people living in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska decide for themselves what to do about the issue of slavery. Because Kansas and Nebraska were in the old Louisiana Territory, and because they were north of where the Missouri Compromise said there couldn’t be slavery, passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act was about the same as tearing up the Missouri Compromise into little pieces. The proslavery folks were happy. The antislavery folks were angry. And those angry folks, the ones who wanted no parts of slavery, were the ones who started the Republican Party.
Then came the Dred Scott decision, in 1857. It was a huge case, man. Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri. His master moved for a while to a spot in the northern part of the Louisiana Territory and took Scott with him. They later went back to Missouri. After that, Scott sued his master. He said that since he had been on soil that was supposed to be free, he was now a free man. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court pretty much told Dred Scott that negroes were inferior, that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.
It seemed that the highest court in the land was on the side of slavery, and that made the antislavery folks mighty depressed. All of them except Frederick Douglass. His view was pretty much: “Look. All this means is if we want to get rid of slavery, we can’t do it with little agreements on pieces of paper. Something big has got to happen.”
He was right. And something big did happen—a couple of things. First was John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, which I’ll get to in just a minute. Then, in 1860, the new Republican Party’s man, Abraham Lincoln, got elected. In 1863, Lincoln freed the slaves—on paper, anyway—with the Emancipation Proclamation.
As bad as the Dred Scott decision was, it helped folks see what needed to happen.
John Brown and the Outbreak of the Civil War
There wouldn’t have been a Civil War without John Brown.
People will say, “Oh, John Brown was crazy.” You ask them, “Why you say that?” and they’ll say, “Well, look at what he did in Kansas.” What did he do in Kansas? “He killed people in Kansas.”
Yeah, but do they know why he did it?
Today, when they have presidential elections, people talk about “battleground states.” Man, let me tell you, most folks today don’t know what a battleground state is all about. As I mentioned earlier, in 1854 the U.S. government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That meant that some land they stole from Native Americans would be the U.S. territories that became the states of Kansas and Nebraska. It also meant that the people who lived there could decide whether the states would be free or slave states. Folks from both sides moved to Kansas, ready to fight. I don’t mean argue. I mean they got ready to shoot and cut one another to death, and that’s what some of them ended up doing. Now that’s a battleground state.
Well, one of the people who went there was John Brown. After some dirty proslavery dogs raided Lawrence, Kansas, and tore up the offices of some abolitionist newspapers and went crazy looting the rest of the town, John Brown and his men came in and killed five proslavery men—hacked them to death. That same year, 1856, Brown and his men, including his sons, fought against the proslavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie. That was John Brown. I’m not talking about some poor chump who joins the army just so he can make a living and then goes out to kill whomever the government tells him to kill. I’m talking about a man who had a belief so strong that he was willing to die for it.
I’ve said it once before: white is not a color; it’s an attitude. By skin color, John Brown was a white man, but he may have been the best friend black folks ever had. He believed that slavery was straight up evil, and he didn’t want to hear about peaceful opposition to slavery—he knew it would take action to get rid of that mess. In 1859, when he decided to raid Harpers Ferry, in Virginia (now in West Virginia), he had twenty-one people with him, five of them black. Now, Harpers Ferry was the U.S. government munitions place, where weapons were made, so it was full of military rifles and bullets. The government had four divisions of troops guarding it. Brown and fewer than two dozen men got in there, killed four people, wounded a bunch more, and held the soldiers off for two days—two days before the soldiers could break in the engine room where John Brown and his men were holed up.
Now, there’s a reason I would place John Brown as one of the most important people who ever lived in the history of planet Earth. Here is a man who not only decided to kill for me and die for me, but he took his own sons with him. You can’t risk more than that; you can’t sacrifice more than that. Even now, I go to the site every year on my birthday, and then I go back on October 16. That’s the day of the raid. And then I go on December 2, which is the day they hanged him. You think Lincoln didn’t know what he was doing when he put that statue of freedom at the US Capitol facing east? He put that there on December 2, 1863. He didn’t say it was in honor of John Brown, but think about it.
When John Brown was about to die, somebody yelled up at him, “How you feel now, nigger lover?” He said, “What I’m dying for, if I was defending rich white men, I’d be your hero.” And when he hit the last step up to the gallows and the noose they were going to hang him with, he said, “Oh, by the way, I talked to God last night and God told me to tell you that you missed the last chance of freeing the Negro without bloodshed.” Brown continued: the Negro would be freed, and it would be the biggest bloodbath in the history of war.
The American Civil War was the first war in history where soldiers on both sides had gone to the same school, West Point. They knew each other’s strategies. That’s why the war dragged on like that. There hadn’t ever been a war like that. That was some nasty stuff. The two sides would stand there and shoot at each other, and when they ran out of bullets, then the real thing started: charging at each other and scooping out each other’s guts with those bayonets, until the ground and everybody on it was covered in red. If there’s a hell, it must look a lot like that.
It was because of John Brown. They killed John Brown, and eighteen months later, the war started, because after what Brown and his men did, there was no turning back. Slavery was going to end or it was going to continue, but either way, the question of slavery was going to be decided through bloodshed. And during the war, what were the Northern soldiers singing? “John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave.” Not “God Bless America,” but “John Brown’s Body.”
You see, racist whites weren’t satisfied with just killing John Brown. After he was dead, they sent word: “We’re not going to let John Brown’s body get back to New York.” When black men heard that, we lined the roads from Harpers Ferry to that little town in New York where Brown was buried—lined the roads, shoulder to shoulder, saying, “Come on, y’all. Come on, just try to get him.” And that’s how Brown’s body got back home: black men saying, “You think you gonna stop something? You will over our dead bodies.”
The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment
Next time you hear some racist say, “Black people don’t want to do anything to help themselves,” tell him about the black soldiers who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. See what he has to say then.
Truth is, 186,000 black soldiers enlisted. Around 50,000 came from free states, and another 40,000 came from what they called border states—those were slaves states that hadn’t seceded from the Union. In those states, some fought for the Union, some for the Confederacy. But the biggest number of black soldiers, about 93,000, came from the Southern states that had left the Union. All of them were called the “United States Colored Troops.”
Mostly they were led by white officers. The white officers weren’t exactly fighting each other over the chance to command the blacks. That changed, though, after the blacks proved they could fight well and bravely and after their regiments started to make a name for themselves. It was no different with the black soldiers. Four men from the all-black Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry—that’s the regiment whose story is told in Glory—won medals for gallantry after their assault on Fort Wagner, on Morris Island, South Carolina, in July 1863. They were gallant, all right. A whole bunch of them gave up their lives.
Just like with everything else black folks tried to do in those days, the first thing black soldiers had to do was convince white folks that we were up to the job. At first the Union didn’t want black soldiers. When the Civil War was heading into its third year and the South was showing no signs of giving up, getting help from black soldiers finally started to seem like a good idea. After Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, a black leader in Boston named Lewis Hayden convinced the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, to put together a regiment of black soldiers. That’s how the Fifty-Fourth was born.
A Union general, Quincy Gillmore, wanted to capture South Carolina, which a lot of folks thought of as the heart of the Confederacy. To do that, they had to get past a few strongholds, and one of the strongest was Fort Wagner. Trying to take out Wagner was like trying to knock somebody out in a boxing ring—that is, if the ring were hip-deep in water and sand and your opponent were wearing body armor. Wagner was on a strip of land with the Atlantic on one side and a swamp on the other. The fort was thirty feet high, two hundred fifty by one hundred yards in size, and made of sand. That might not sound very strong, but it was fortified with logs and sandbags, and it had wooden spikes in front of it, spikes sharp enough to go right through you, plus land mines—step on one of those and it’d be the last step you ever took in this life. Wagner had a moat around it, too. And did I mention the fourteen cannons sticking out of it? I give those Southern folks this much: they knew how to play defense.
The Union wasn’t stupid. They knew if they just charged Fort Wagner they’d get shot down like ducks. So, before they did, they tried firing shells at it. Problem was, Wagner had what they called a “bombproof”: roof beams with ten feet of sand on top of them. The Fifty-Fourth spent most of the day shooting shells at that thing, and after about eleven hours it was still standing. Still, the Union figured they had softened it up enough so the soldiers could take it.
That’s where the Fifty-Fourth came in. One of them was Lewis Henry Douglass, Frederick Douglass’s son. They were commanded by Col. Robert Gould Shaw—skinny white dude, wasn’t but twenty-five years old. His parents were abolitionists. At that point, Colonel Shaw ordered 624 men from the Fifty-Fourth to quick-march in with muskets and bayonets. As they got closer to Fort Wagner, they started to jog. When they were close enough, the Confederates inside the fort fired on them. Some from the Fifty-Fourth fell, but the others kept going. The wooden spikes didn’t stop them—they climbed right over that crap. The moat didn’t stop them, either—all the shelling had half-filled it with sand. But the Confederates didn’t stop firing, either. The Fifty-Fourth got mowed down. Colonel Shaw got killed, too, as did the waves of soldiers the Union sent in after the Fifty-Fourth. When it was all over, the fort still hadn’t fallen.
The Fifty-Fourth didn’t succeed that day. But they were as brave as all hell, and they were fighting for black folks’ freedom—and for the country, to keep it in one piece, North and South. They made the biggest sacrifice you can make.
The way something looks is not always the way it is, and what white folks say is definitely not always the truth. Do I really have to remind you of that?
For instance, when I was a boy, a friend of mine and I used to go out in the suburbs and throw bricks at those little black jockeys—you know, the ones you see holding lanterns on white folks’ lawns. Then, one day I said, “Hey, man. Something’s not right about this. Jockeys don’t carry lanterns.” We decided to see what was up.
We got to looking and looking and looking, and then I found out that the “jockey” who started it all, the one behind those statues, wasn’t a jockey at all. He was a twelve-year-old boy and—are you ready?—General George Washington’s number one war strategist. Name was Jocko Graves. He was the son of Tom Graves, a free black man in Washington’s army. Jocko wanted to fight in the army, too, but he was too young. That didn’t stop him from traveling with Washington and the troops. That little black boy wanted to go, so he went. Simple as that.
One morning, Jocko saw General Washington, and it looked like something was bothering him, so Jocko said, “What’s wrong, Pop?”
Washington said, “Ah, nothing.”
Jocko said, “Come on. You worried ’bout something.”
Washington told him, “We think the British are going to come in at this point, down here, and we’ll be waiting for them. But there’s also a possibility they’ll come in over there. I can’t divide my troops.” That little twelve-year-old said, “Don’t worry. I think you’re right, but give me that lantern. If they come that way, I can see them if they come around that bend.”
It turned out George Washington was right. His army battled the British all night, killed them all. When Washington ran over to where Jocko was holding that lantern to keep a lookout for the British, he saw that the boy had frozen to death. Now that’s loyalty.
That’s why I say you can’t trust what folks tell you. They reduced that story down to just some little tar-black jockey-looking kid holding a lantern on white folks’ lawns, when the real story is about loyalty. Twelve-year-old black boy froze to death protecting the American revolutionaries.
Even the white folks who know the story tell it wrong. According to them, Jocko froze to death holding the reins of Washington’s horses—this shows Jocko’s loyalty, but holding reins didn’t require brains. Don’t pay attention to that mess.
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
People talk about Abraham Lincoln like he was the best friend black folks ever had because he freed the slaves. Lincoln didn’t care a thing about black folks, and he sure wasn’t their best friend. Now, you can look this up: Lincoln met with a roomful of black men in the White House and told them they weren’t as smart as white folks. One of his ideas for what to do after slavery was round up black folks and send them to another country. Think about your best friend. Would he or she tell you to your face you’re as stupid as the day is long, and then try to get you to move out of the country? If the answer is yes, you need a new best friend. Or else, maybe your friend is right about the stupid part.
Lincoln didn’t care one way or another about black folks, or about slavery, either. He wanted to preserve the Union, that’s all. Here’s what he said: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some, and leaving others alone, I would do that.” Now, maybe that doesn’t sound like somebody who hates black people. It doesn’t exactly sound like somebody with their best interests at heart, either, does it? Abraham Lincoln was a white man of his time. That’s the long and the short of it.
Folks say Lincoln got killed for freeing black folks. Maybe. Maybe not.
Think about this a minute. Lincoln was president during the Civil War, after the Southern states had seceded from the United States, and he had to find a way to preserve that Union he cared so much about. (You know, the one blacks built for free during slavery.) Now, it takes money to fight a war. If you’re fighting in the army but you don’t get paid, pretty soon you might just stop fighting. Plus, you’ve got to eat. The government has to pay for all that. Well, the government didn’t have enough money. So, Lincoln went to banks in New York and asked to borrow what he needed. The banks said, “Sure. But you have to pay us back at 36 percent interest.” That meant the U.S. government would have to pay the banks back every dime it borrowed plus another one-third on top of that. That’s like if you ask your neighbor to borrow his screwdriver and he says, “Sure, you can borrow it, but when you bring it back, you’ve got to give me some screws along with it.” Lincoln said, “Later for that.”
What did Lincoln do instead? He ordered the government to print money. Called it “greenbacks.” Before that point in U.S. history, anytime the government printed a dollar, it had to have a dollar’s worth of gold to back it up. But with the North fighting a war and Lincoln needing a way to pay for it, in 1862 Lincoln said, “Go ahead and print money.” That way, the thinking went, the government wouldn’t owe money to the banks. All this new money was floating around, and the banks didn’t have a thing to do with it. If you think the banks liked that, think again.
Now, go forward almost exactly a hundred years, when we had another president who was supposed to be a friend to black folks: John F. Kennedy. Comes into office, starts making all kind of noise about what he’s going to do for blacks. Of course, he didn’t get a chance to do it—if that’s what he was really going to do—because in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, he was assassinated. All his plans fell to his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson.
People like to say Kennedy was killed for what he wanted to do for black folks. Maybe, maybe not.
Look here: On June 4, 1963, Kennedy signed Executive Order No. 11110, which allowed the U.S. government, once again, to print money without going through the Federal Reserve Bank. In other words, the government could get money without owing one thin dime to the bankers. So, once again, there was new money but no action for the banks. The whole reason the Federal Reserve Bank exists is to lend money to the government and get paid back with interest. If it can’t do that, it’s out of business. If you think the Federal Reserve bankers wanted that, think again. Kennedy got killed five months later. Folks said it was because he supported civil rights, but he was also one of two presidents who tried to get around the banks. The other one was Abraham Lincoln.
What do you think?